STARKVILLE — Rima Kalonda isn”t as smooth as Armelie Lumanu.
Kalonda also doesn”t have the silky shooting touch or the shot-blocker”s reach of Chanel Mokango.
But just because Kalonda has different strengths than her Mississippi State women”s basketball teammates doesn”t mean she isn”t playing a key role in the team”s success.
Kalonda has shown just how effective she can be in the past three games. The 6-foot-3 center, who has started the past five games, is averaging 6.3 points and 7.7 rebounds and has played a key role in helping the Lady Bulldogs go 2-1 in their last three outings.
“She is understanding and we have talked to her about defending, and screening,” MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. “If she does those three things for us well, hopefully, she will be able to get some offensive rebounds or some easy baskets close to the bucket. She has to understand that the more minutes she is getting that production is expected, as well.”
Kalonda will try to keep up her solid work in the post at noon today when MSU (15-8, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) plays at Florida (12-10, 5-4) in a key SEC matchup at the O”Connell Center.
With six games remaining in the regular season, MSU is tied with Georgia and Vanderbilt for third place in the SEC. The Lady Bulldogs hold the tiebreaker on both of those teams.
A victory today would earn MSU a series split with Florida this season, and help it solidify its spot near the top of the conference. The Gators, who are tied with Ole Miss in the league, earned a 55-52 victory in Starkville on Jan. 17. South Carolina (5-5) and LSU (4-5) are also in the mix in the middle of the league.
The top four teams earn first-round byes for the SEC Tournament on March 4-7 in Duluth, Ga.
Kalonda”s emergence as a bigger contributor has fueled MSU”s climb to third. She scored seven points and grabbed four rebounds in 30 minutes in a 74-66 victory against No. 9 Georgia on Jan. 28. She had four points and seven rebounds in 31 minutes in a 69-59 loss to Kentucky on Jan. 31. On Thursday, she matched her career-high with eight points and had a career-high 12 rebounds in 23 minutes in a 77-44 victory against Alabama.
Kalonda teamed with Lumanu and Mokango for two years at Southeastern Illinois College. All three players are from Kinshasa, Congo, and all three brought different talents to the court in junior college.
For Kalonda, her role at Southeastern Illinois is much like it is now. She averaged 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds as a sophomore.
After averaging 1.7 points and 2.6 rebounds last season as a junior at MSU, Fanning-Otis said Kalonda is playing to her strengths and figuring how to put herself into scoring position. She said earlier in the season Kalonda was just turning and shooting. Now, she said Kalonda is catching the ball stronger and is making better decisions (pass or shoot) with the basketball.
Kalonda said she feels more confident on the court. She said her goal is to do whatever it takes to help the team win.
“I just need to work hard every day and play defense and rebound,” Kalonda said. “I feel if I have good position (I can get every rebound).
“I feel I have practiced harder to play more so I can help the team. Coach Fanning-Otis is trying to push me harder in practice.”
Senior Alexis Rack noticed the difference Thursday as Kalonda had a game-high 12 rebounds. That performance helped raised Kalonda”s season averages to 3.1 points and 4.1 rebounds.
“Rima stepped up tonight,” Rack said Thursday. “Rima was hitting shots and almost every board that was coming off the rim it looked like she was getting it. She was real aggressive. If she keeps it up it will be a key to us winning a lot of games.”
Fanning-Otis said Kalonda”s contributions help make everyone better, which is key as the season winds down toward the SEC and the NCAA tournaments.
“For us as a team it has to be balance,” Fanning-Otis said. “For us to be a great basketball team, everybody has to play a role. Defensively, Rima is talking on screens, which we”re going to see a lot of. She is learning to hedge and sprint back to her player, and a lot of little things are getting better.
“That”s going to make Chanel, Alexis, everybody better when you have another person who can score around the basket.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.